The Audacity of Hopelessness

Head in Hands

Last summer, I came across another of those darkly hilarious post-recession job search stories. In this particular installment, one Taylor Grey Meyer lost it on a sales manager from the San Diego Padres, an organization to which she’d applied for a job no less than 30 times. After the standard radio silence response to her applications, she received an out-of-the-blue email alert to an “opportunity” to attend a job fair hosted by the Padres for the bargain price of $495.

And that’s when Grey–whose previous experience reportedly included an internship with Major League Soccer–went a wee bit berserk, firing off an email described by the sports website Deadspin as “one of the great emails of our time.”

“After careful review, I must decline. I realize I may be burning bridges here, but in the spirit of reciprocity, I would like to extend you a counter-offer to suck my dick. Clearly, I don’t have one of these, so my offer makes about as much sense as yours. But for the price you’re charging to attend the event, I’m sure I would have no trouble borrowing one.”

Not surprisingly, her response proceeded to go viral, and—as Deadspin wrote—“perhaps, on balance, it wasn’t the worst move in the world. Meyer has already received one note from a sales office, asking her if she’d like to come in for an interview.”

All of which got me thinking about the job search process in the wilds of the Brave New Normal – and how the best strategies sometimes emerge only after you’ve given up.

My own experience—though far less jaw-dropping—provides a case in point.  One of the standard pieces of advice to anyone who’s gone through a layoff is to downplay the layoff part and up-play what you’ve accomplished. That’s pretty much how I rolled in the beginning. I kept busy! Volunteered! Updated my resume! Then, after a year or so, I ran out of steam. I started to feel a bit defeated. And also a bit defiant. Which explains my decision to write publicly about being unemployed.

The first piece I wrote for Salon on the topic of unemployment was published with the provocative headline “Even Harvard Couldn’t Protect Me”—capitalizing on the irony of my educational pedigree—though my real point was something quite different: That navigating unemployment requires tremendous inner resources, far more, in my experience, than what’s needed to navigate success.

Like Grey’s, my writing elicited a range of responses—from withering accusations of self-indulgence to heartfelt words of support.  (I still cherish one defense: “Does Salon have no standards at all?” my supporter rhetorically asks, quoting an especially virulent attacker.  And then goes on to answer: “Obviously not. If they did — most of the first few letters in response to a Gutman piece would be moderated into oblivion. The fact that they allow their excellent authors to be harassed by the nation’s under-medicated tells us all we need to know (and more) . . . .”)

While my Salon essays on unemployment didn’t lead to a job right away, in retrospect they were a first step on the path that got me there. The essays led to Plan B Nation, and this blog—along with being hugely gratifying—kept me visible to people in a position to hire me. One of these was a former Harvard colleague who reached out last summer when an opening came up in her department. (A side benefit: When I interviewed, there was no need to explain my time out of the workforce. They already knew my story. It’s how I had come to be there. ) I was hired and started work last September. Things are going well.

Let me be clear: When I talk about the benefits of hopelessness, I don’t mean despair, which is never ever helpful. What I’m talking about is being open, a topic I’ve explored many times before. The danger of hope is that it can tie us to a very specific iteration of a very specific story at a time when we’re far better served by staying alert to opportunities in whatever form they take. The more wedded we are to a specific outcome—the more we narrow our sights—the harder it may be to craft a fulfilling life with the materials at hand.

I don’t know what’s happened to Meyer since last summer—I shot off an email to her via LinkedIn this morning but haven’t yet heard back. The best clue I found was a “Public Figure” Facebook page where her photo (she’s a lovely blonde) tops the following tagline: “Taylor Grey Meyer had already been rejected by the Padres over 30 times before she got an email from the baseball team that was the last straw.” No sign of regret. No apologies. What began as an F U moment seems to have become a personal brand.

Why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But if you do, try this.

2013 Yield

Last week, a producer at HuffPost Live emailed me to ask if I’d be willing to talk about New Year’s resolutions for an upcoming segment. In particular, she wanted to ask me about a piece I’d written about willpower and whether I’d been able to accomplish this year’s goals.

It seemed like something that I should do, and so at first I said yes. But I hedged my response by saying that I don’t really make resolutions. We had a bit of back and forth – What exactly did I mean? – and I finally said, you know, I think you should talk to someone else.

Until this conversation, I hadn’t quite realized how deep my resistance runs. Simply put, New Year’s resolutions strike me as a set-up. A set-up for failure. A set-up for staying stuck. Resolutions assume a fixity that, in my experience, simply doesn’t exist. The goals I set last year – or last month – often aren’t the same as those that will move me forward today.

This is especially true in times of transition, when life is inherently unpredictable. This blog – Plan B Nation – began as a personal exploration of strategies to navigate loss and uncertainty after the Great Recession. One of my major ongoing lessons has been the importance of staying open – of not insisting that the future take a certain form.

As I drafted this post, I happened on a print out of writer Virginia Woolf’s New Year Resolutions that I’d totally forgotten about until now but likely had been saving for just this moment. (I’m pretty sure these must have come via my Virginia Woolf scholar friend Anne Fernald.) Dated January 2, 1931, the list begins:

Here are my resolutions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year.

To have none. Not to be tied.

Indeed. (And I especially love the fact that even the resolution of making no resolutions extends only three months forward.)

Speaking for myself, I could never have predicted the events of this past year – that I’d move back to Boston to start a new job in a totally new field. This wasn’t a path I could have envisioned, let alone planned. And yet, it’s turned out to provide much of what I most needed.

This is why I don’t think of goals as endpoints – I think of them as stepping stones and experiments. This means staying curious and open even as I take action. Is this goal still serving me? Or is it time for something else?

Which isn’t to say that goals don’t have their place, just that it’s best to hold them lightly. Actionable goals are the means to an end. They are not the end in themselves. Goals can be great tools, but they are terrible masters.

That said, of course, we do need to get stuff done. Whether your goals are for a year or an hour, here are a few tactics you may want to try.

Be strategic in how you use your limited stock of willpower. (I talk about the specifics of this in my Huffington Post piece, which draws heavily on the book Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.)

If you’re struggling with a goal, reflect on whether you’re contending with a competing goal. This strategy comes from my one-time professor Robert Kegan, who proposes the following four-column exercise. Identify in turn: (1) Your goal (e.g., I want to find fulfilling work), (2) The behaviors that run counter to this goal (e.g., I take jobs that aren’t meaningful to me), (3) Competing commitments (e.g., I need to maintain a certain income and level of savings), (4) Assumptions that underlie and support the third-column commitments (e.g., If I go back to school or take a job that pays less, everyone will think I’m irresponsible.)

The point here isn’t to  promote a particular course of action but rather to gain a better understanding of what drives you – an awareness that can lead to a profound shift in perspective. (The example above is based on an interview I did with Kegan earlier this year for this piece in Psychology Today.)

Keep your eyes on the prize. The true goal isn’t to go to the gym every day or write a novel or organize your office or any of the other zillions of tasks that we set for ourselves. The true goal is to live a happy life – a life infused with value and meaning, whatever that is for you.

I wish that for myself, and I wish that for all of you. Thank you for sharing my 2012. Here’s to the year to come.

Turkish delight

What qualities are most helpful in navigating Plan B Nation?

Having given this question a lot of thought, I’ve concluded that one of the most important is a capacity for openness. By this I mean, an ability to drop ideas of how life should be — to be open to the unexpected gifts in unexpected detours and derailments.

It wasn’t until Plan B Nation guest blogger Ellen Rabiner asked me to reciprocate that I realized how much this insight owes to my time in Turkey. In a new guest post for Ellen in Turkey, I explain how this came to be.

40 ways to appreciate a kidney stone

At the er for a migraine

I wake up a little before seven with a sharp pain in my lower back. Just that old pulled muscle acting up again—but man, this time it really hurts. I gobble a bunch of Advil and hobble back to bed.

A few hours later, I’m up again. While the pain has abated, it’s still there, and I briefly wonder if I should mosey over to the Emergency Room. But no, I’m being a wimp. I pop a couple more Advil, pack up my computer, and head off to a café. It’s Monday—Memorial Day—but I didn’t make any plans, in part because I really need to motor through a bunch of work.

I’m eating my croissant and sipping coffee when the pain washes over me again. I look up from my laptop screen. This really doesn’t feel right. And yes, it seems silly to go to the ER because of back pain, but you know what? I don’t care.

Well, as you’ve likely figured out by now, this wasn’t just my ancient sports injury giving me grief. It was a kidney stone. I’m still not sure exactly what this is—something about a calcified something trying to find its way out—but I do have one salient piece of advice:  Refrain from getting one.

“It’s really good you came in,” said the medical technician, who started the IV drip to administer pain meds and fluids.

I hadn’t brought anything to read, but I did have my iPhone. “Holiday greetings from the Cooley Dick emergency room! Working hypothesis: kidney stones. #tmi,” I typed into Facebook.

Thanks to social media, I had instant company.

“I read a great essay a few days ago about how you can make difficult experiences better by crafting the story that you’ll later tell about them. Or something like that,” my writer friend Megan quipped.  She was talking about this, and in fact, I already was.

At the time the pain struck, I was finishing up a column for SecondAct about doing a Plan B Nation-style Happiness Project. The idea, of course, grew out of lawyer-turned-writer Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. I’ve sometimes jokingly call Plan B Nation  “a Happiness Project for the rest of us”—for those who don’t already have Rubin’s picture perfect life—and I wanted to write about that.

But lying in the ER, my mind wandered to two of Rubin’s previous books—Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK.  And then: Forty Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Stone. The title just popped into my head, and I decided to make a list. (If you’re interested, you can read it below. In fact, I only came up with 25, but in deference to whimsicality, I left the title unchanged.)

Two days later, I was telling my writer friend Lisa about my misadventure. “I was so convinced it was that sports injury that I blocked out any other option.”

As it happened, Lisa had her own such story. Walking down a dark Brooklyn street a number of years back, she caught sight of three suspicious-looking characters ambling towards her. If you see something suspicious, always look at your watch. A friend had described having done just that after seeing a plane fly low over Manhattan’s Twin Towers. Now Lisa did it herself. In an instant, she saw herself on the witness stand, Law and Order style. She alone would have the facts! And then, she was mugged.

“Oh! I’m not a witness! I’m the victim!” was her first astonished thought.

You might say our minds have minds of their own. They assume “facts,” create stories, and often won’t shut up until they get us to act accordingly.  At times, this is a great thing. Our lives depend on it. But helpful as our minds may try to be, they sometimes lead us astray. Their first impulse isn’t always the right one. That’s why we need to keep them open.

Forty Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Stone

1. It wasn’t something worse

2. I got to meet the super nice super kind people in the Cooley Dick emergency room

3. I wasn’t out of town

4. I didn’t have the disappointment of cancelling holiday plans (had been feeling a little glum about not having any. Now I was glad.)

5.  It didn’t happen right before a work deadline

6. I wasn’t screwing up anyone else’s holiday plans

7. It gave me an opportunity to test my story-creating tool—and find it worked again

8. It led me to appreciate health in a way I hadn’t the day before

9. It gave me another way to reflect on the quality of openness that I’ve been mulling; the ability to see outside expectations. In brief, my initial tendency was to attribute this to a flaring of a sports injury. In fact, it was something different.

10. I told a nurse about Greenie pill pockets for her aging cat

11. I appreciated living in a place with easy access to medical care

12. I now know what these symptoms mean in the event they strike again

13. I know I should be drinking more water.

14. Another way to connect with friends

15. It gave me a chance to see that, at least sometimes, I’m getting better than I used to be about life not going according to my plans.

16. It gave me a sense that I’m not as much of a pain wimp as I’ve always thought of myself as being.

17. I didn’t have to take the heavy duty painkillers.

18. I had the heavy duty painkillers in reserve, which was reassuring.

19. Appreciate FB—didn’t have to call any one person but had community support, felt not alone + knew I had someone to call on if it turned out I did need help

20. Friends who offered to help

21. Made me appreciate insurance

22. Made me appreciate Mass, where health insurance is affordable

23. Made me appreciate my apartment—quiet, restful, safe space to recuperate.

24. Appreciate my car—that I was able to drive myself to the ER

25. Writing about this gives me a chance to connect with others—and maybe help someone else who ends up in this place in the future. (Research suggests that helping others makes us happier than doing things for ourselves.)

Why follow-through is overrated

trying to look perfect

This month’s Life Experiment has been a total bust. Except that it’s also been a total success. Let me explain.

As some readers will recall, I began this month with the idea that I would take at least one photograph each day. I was interested in how this would shift the way I moved through the world and also viewed it as an opportunity to learn to use a recently acquired but languishing digital camera.

All of this made sense in theory. In practice? Not so much. Here’s how it played out.

At the end of a harried Day 1, I snapped a hasty photo with my iPhone. (Better than nothing, I told myself.)

Day 2, same thing.

By Day 3 or 4, I’d forgotten about it. Ditto the days that followed. Until at some point over the next week I realized that this wasn’t happening.

My first reaction was to get stressed out over my follow-through failure. What was I going to write this month? What would I say to you readers?

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw another possibility.  After all, this was billed as an experiment. No, it hadn’t gone off as planned, but that was entirely different from saying that it had been a total loss. I decided—as an experiment—to adopt a different perspective, to detach the experience from the goal and ask what it had to teach me.

Here’s what I found:

1. I need to reconnect with my core purpose.

When I embarked on monthly Life Experiments at the start of 2012, my goal wasn’t to create yet another to-do list. Rather it was to explore how changing one thing in my life might lead to other unexpected shifts. Over time, I’ve started to lose track of this, and my “experiments” have come to feel more and more like 30-day Challenges. Be more productive! Just do it!  That wasn’t what I’d been aiming for, but it’s where I ended up. Time for some reflection and retuning.

2. I need to do less, not more.

The reason I wasn’t taking photos was very simple. I’m really really busy!  Over the past six months, I’ve gone from struggling to fill my days with meaningful activities to a jam-packed schedule, with freelance deadlines, workshop facilitating, friends, exercise, and life maintenance all vying for time. This is in many ways a good thing, but it also has its own challenges, which I need to find ways to address. (Also: I need to take time to appreciate how far I’ve come!)

3.  I need to do more to infuse my life with playfulness.

I recently wrote about an ah hah recognition that I need more playfulness in my life. During my time in Plan B Nation, I’ve taken a lot of pride in my ability to simply carry on, to put one foot in front of the other during hard and uncertain times. There have been days—and not a few—when simply getting out of bed felt like a real accomplishment. It seemed like enough that I could say, in the words of 12-step programs everywhere, that I’d managed to “take the next right action.”

But I’ve come to see that, while this approach can be helpful in times of crisis, it’s not (for me) the best approach to life over the long haul. Over the long haul, I want to be happy, not simply to endure. Getting things done is certainly part of a happy life, but it’s far from sufficient.

Language plays a big role here: The more I think about this issue, the more aware I am of how the words I use shape the quality of my daily experience. Tool kit. Task List. Marching orders. This is the language of command and control. This is the language that, all too often, I use when I talk to myself (when issuing marching orders).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

For example, instead of “next right action” how about “breadcrumbs”? Think fairy tales, think Hansel and Gretel and the trail they left to find their way back home. (Okay, so in the story birds eat the bread, but I still like the metaphor.)

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about what qualities help us thrive while traveling Plan B Nation (and other psychologically harsh terrains), and it seems to me that one of the most important is the quality of openness. By this, I mean the ability to see alternatives and possibility where we might easily see failure.

In a feature story about famous accidental discoveries, the Daily Beast recounts how the discovery of penicillin came about after Scottish bacteriologist Andrew Fleming noticed that mold had started to grow on some cultures he’d left exposed. Years later, he toured a state-of-the-art medical lab, far cleaner than the one where his scientific breakthrough occurred.

“If you had worked here, think of what you could have invented,” his guide remarked.

Fleming’s cool response: “Not penicillin.”

Plan B Nation bookshelf: Aging as a Spiritual Practice (+ book giveaway)

“Aging is depressing,” a friend announced, after seeing Iron Lady, the new Margaret Thatcher biopic starring Meryl Streep.

This is no doubt true, at least for some of us, some of the time. But even more to the point is this salient fact: It happens to all of us.

Given the inevitability of growing older, it seems sensible to give some thought to how we can mine this experience for whatever good it contains. In this spirit, I was drawn to read Buddhist teacher Lewis Richmond’s new book Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser (Gotham Books 2012).

Richmond’s message is twofold: On the one hand, everything we love is destined to change, age, and pass away. On the other, “every moment brings with it new opportunities” if we can only stay open to them.  In writing this book, he set out to help us do just that.

As Richmond sees it, our goal should be flexibility—physical, mental, and emotional—qualities that research has linked to longer and healthier lives. With this end in mind, he offers an array of Buddhist-infused meditations and tools along with sharing his own life story and those of others, including several inspiring examples of “the extraordinary elderly.”

Richmond stresses that the challenges of aging aren’t limited to those on the far side of middle age—and may not even correlate with chronological age. “I’m twenty-seven, and I’ve suddenly realized that I’m growing old,” wrote one correspondent.  “I’m seventy-three, and I’ve never felt younger,” wrote another.

But while our inner experiences may differ, there are common denominators. “Aging is not just change, but irreversible change—for better or worse,” Richmond observes. Some may find this insight depressing, but I found it strangely liberating. If you’re anything like me, you spent a lot of your young adulthood leaning into the future, striving to create the conditions for whatever life you thought would make you happy. For me, an upside of reaching middle age has been an enhanced capacity to live in the present moment (which, as the Buddhists have told us for millennia, is all that we ever really have).

I was also struck by the extent to which the skills Richmond says we need to successfully navigate aging have much in common with those needed to successfully navigate Plan B Nation, regardless of age. For example, Richmond talks about the importance of creating new identities to replace those we have lost—as true for a newly unemployed as it is for an aging retiree.

In particular, I liked this exercise. I plan to try it. You might want to try it too:

Make three lists. In the first, include what has been lost in the last three or five or 10 years (you pick the time frame).  In the second, include what has been gained. In the third, include new possibilities for replenishing your identity.  And with this last list, Richmond urges, “Reach as high and as far as you can.”

Note: Gotham Books has kindly provided an extra copy of Aging as a Spiritual Practice for me to give away. For a chance to win the book, leave a comment below.  At the bottom of your comment, please indicate you’d like to be entered in the drawing by typing the word “giveaway.” The drawing is next weekend.